Canada’s border agency says there’s “growing evidence” that organized crime groups are trying to corrupt its officers, leading to a growing number of cases of drug and firearm smuggling.
The warning was included in a set of documents prepared for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair when he took over the job late last year. The documents were obtained by CBC News through an access to information request.
Under the heading “increasing threat complexity,” the CBSA warns of “growing evidence of transnational criminal organizations seeking to exploit CBSA systems, processes and personnel and employing increasingly sophisticated concealment methods.”
The phrase “CBSA systems” refers to agency computer systems conducting data processing, record-keeping, communications, telecommunications, account inventory and account management, along with CBSA’s websites and electronic applications.
The briefing binder goes on to warn of a growing number of cross-border incidents involving “smuggling, counterfeit goods, human trafficking, money laundering and proceeds of crime … resulting in greater potential for Canadians to be exposed to harmful contraband” such as illegal firearms and drugs.
The CBSA wouldn’t say which crime organizations were the subject of its warning to the minister, or how many personnel are suspected of being involved.
It did say members of crime groups have been linked to incidents of seized goods, passenger interdictions, inadmissible persons and contraband smuggling, along with other violations of the Customs Act, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and various Criminal Code sections.
“To maintain their integrity, the CBSA and its federal and law enforcement partners do not disclose specific details on intelligence or other investigations,” said spokesperson Rebecca Purdy in an email to CBC News.
“However, we can tell you that there are numerous internal controls, policies and procedures in place to ensure the integrity of our operations and our systems. For example, CBSA systems security is supported by a devoted internal team, Shared Services Canada, as well as the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security.”
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While it sounds like a plotline ripped from a Martin Scorsese movie, Canadian custom agents have been implicated in official corruption in the past.
Antonio Nicaso, a Mafia expert who teaches courses on organized crime at Queen’s University, said Canadian ports and airports have a long history of corruption.
“They are able to corrupt people who work at the airport to avoid the scrutiny. People working at any level at the airport, people with assignments like cleaning, stuff like that, vendors,” he said.
“There’s always a system.”
Operation Coliseum, a multi-year police probe targeting organized crime in Montreal, exposed how the infamous and powerful Rizzuto family had lured people working in customs and the airline industry into its cocaine smuggling world.
“They were practically able to corrupt a couple of agents and so they were able to pass through customs without an inspection,” Nicaso said.
“You can’t say the agency is corrupt, of course. It’s just a few people corrupted, but that happened in the past … there are bad apples everywhere.”
A 2017 Auditor General’s report found that while the Canada Border Services Agency and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada both developed controls to curb corruption, “neither organization adequately monitored the controls to ensure they were working as intended.”
“This left the organizations and their officials vulnerable to corruption,” the report continued. “For example, neither organization used available information proactively to detect staff activities that could indicate potential corruption.”
CBSA’s recent warning to the minister shows the risk hasn’t gone away.
Documents obtained by CBC News through a different access to information request outlined a long list of allegations filed against Canada Border Services Agency officers since the start of 2018 — including a handful of allegations of criminal association.
The files are heavily redacted and it’s not clear whether the allegations were ever verified.
Canada employs about 6,500 border officers at land crossings, airports, marine terminals, rail ports and postal facilities, tasked with keeping illicit goods and dangerous people from entering the country.